For the tenth time in the last half-hour, Rachel looked from her laptop down at the egg case floating in the saltwater pool. Iridescent aubergine with pale green streaks, it was about the size and shape of a prize-winning pumpkin. Her lips curled up just slightly. Of course she would compare it to a pumpkin; she had just been thinking about her and AJ’s last date, the day at the harvest festival. Fried food and happy yelling kids and farmers showing off all their biggest gourds, the pumpkins so huge they came up to Rachel’s shoulder. Then she remembered leaving and her smile flickered. How she had to drive them home because AJ drank too much. He wasn’t drunk; the beer cups at the Octoberfest tent were bigger than normal, and his speech was a little fuzzy. It wasn’t worth the risk for him to drive. Not so close to the wedding.
And when she thought of the wedding they’d planned, her smile disappeared completely. Her heart crumpled in on itself. Her breathing sped up. She closed her eyes and took slow deep breaths until she felt normal again. When she opened her eyes, the egg case still sat submerged in the pool, same as ever.
When she returned to the research paper she was reading for her dissertation, the words still wouldn’t stick in her brain. Sighing, she stood up and strolled over to the pool, absentmindedly lifting her index finger to her mouth to gnaw on the already-ragged cuticle.
Crouching down for a better view, Rachel marveled at the egg case, just one of many that had started washing ashore almost a year earlier and were immediately brought for study at research facilities like this one. No one knew why they were showing up now, and none had hatched a living animal, but even without the mystery, they were beautiful. The room with the pool opened to the outside on one end, with plastic flaps that could be lowered in inclement weather. In the afternoon light, the egg case practically shimmered.
Suddenly, the egg case moved, and even though it was probably just shifting in the mild current, Rachel jumped, yanking her finger back from her teeth, the strip of skin between them peeling off painfully. She hissed and stuck her finger in her mouth, but the action had sent tiny drops of blood arcing away from her. Red dots covered the concrete floor below her, trailing in the direction of the pool. Her mouth tasted of copper and salt as blood continued to ooze from her finger. Panicked, she leaned over the railing. Sure enough, dull crimson-brown fog was dissipating into the tank. No one would notice, she told herself. Even the cameras trained on the egg case wouldn’t have seen. But if they did and she didn’t notify Dr. Solomon, she would be in big trouble. Maybe fired, though she didn’t think this was something they could kick her out of her Ph.D. program for.
Feeling her heart start to race again, Rachel retreated to her relaxation techniques, the ones she’d been taught to help deal with the anxiety, with AJ’s death, just two weeks after the harvest festival. She focused on her breathing, listening to the slow in and out of air through her mouth and nostrils.
Something cracked. Rachel’s eyes flew open at the sound. Oh God, she thought. Oh no.
The egg case was hatching.
Ever since she was a girl, Rachel had been fascinated by the ocean, by fish and marine mammals and coral reefs and aquatic plants. From then on, she’d studied them, watched them, visited every aquarium she could. And then moved on to studying marine biology as an undergrad and then a doctoral candidate. By the time she started her job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, she’d seen countless fish born. Nothing she’d seen was like what came out of the giant egg case in the saltwater tank.
Newborn fish, like so many newborn animals, usually struggled into life, squirming, confused, needing time to understand the harsh and sudden expansion of their world. This creature burst from the egg case like a firework, body and tail thrashing, flicking away rubbery pieces of the purse. The face that emerged was flat, almost humanoid, but as the rest of the body tumbled out of the egg case and into the water, Rachel saw that that was about the only humanoid part of the creature. Roughly the size of an average-height person, its limbless torso tapered down to a blunt tail. Wavy, rounded fins lined its sides and spine from neck to where the tail began. They rippled in the water as the creature righted itself, turning around, seeming to take in its surroundings. Silver and bronze streaks flashed across its body as it moved and caught the light from outside. Rachel’s scientist instincts kicked in, and she forgot all about her panic over bleeding in the pool as she studied the creature.
The creature finished twisting and stopped facing Rachel. It poked its head above the water and stared at her, its eyes green with deep black pupils, set over membranes that Rachel thought might function as nostrils. The creature opened its mouth, gurgling and hissing like a coffee pot.
Rachel looked into the creature’s eyes, followed their gaze to her finger. Blood smeared the back of her fingernail. She shifted her hand, and the creature’s eyes shifted with it.
“It’s beautiful,” Rachel said. “Seriously, Tanya. I’ve never seen anything like it.” She laughed. “No one has! I’m literally the first person in the world.”
Tanya took a pull from her bottle of beer. “The first confirmed sighting of a real live mermaid. That should get you your own Wikipedia page.”
Rachel groaned. “Don’t use that word. It’s woefully inaccurate.”
Tanya shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s what they’re calling it on the news. Besides, it kind of looks like a person. In a burn-victim, nightmare kind of way.”
They sat next to each other on the couch in Tanya’s living room, feet up on the coffee table, muted TV tuned to twenty-four-hour news. To Rachel’s chagrin, the discovery of a new large oceanic species—or, as Tanya would say, proof that mermaids existed—did not completely dominate the news. Still, every hour or so, the channel would cycle back to the story, show the picture of the creature—Fine, she thought, the mermaid—before moving on. So far, in all the commentary and discussion, no one had settled on a reason for why this mermaid hatched while the rest of the egg cases around the world lay dormant or spewed out stillborn masses of scales and flesh. Rachel had admitted to Dr. Solomon that she’d accidentally bled into the pool, but while it wasn’t dismissed out of hand, it was clear her boss didn’t think that Rachel’s blood had actually contributed to the mermaid’s birth.
Tanya tilted her head back and forth as the picture of the mermaid came onscreen. “Yeah, I don’t know if beautiful is the right word.”
Rachel looked at the mermaid’s picture. She looked at its eyes and remembered the way it stared at her. The focus, the intensity.
“No,” she said. “It’s right.”
Dr. Solomon wore a lab coat at the Institute, even though she didn’t really need to. Some people might find it arrogant, but Rachel thought it was charming.
She also appreciated that she could often hear Dr. Solomon approaching by the swish of the material against her clothes. By the time Dr. Solomon got to her cubicle, Rachel was already swiveling in her chair to face her.
“How much blood?” Dr. Solomon asked without preamble.
“How much blood did you get in the tank?”
Caught off guard, Rachel looked to her finger as if it were still bleeding. “Hardly any. A few drops maybe.”
Dr. Solomon sighed and shook her head. “Sounds unlikely, but I don’t see what else it could be. Time to experiment. Regardless, maybe it—I don’t know—imprinted on you. Like a duckling.” Her voice trailed off as she mumbled to herself.
“Doctor?” Rachel said.
Dr. Solomon started, as if she’d forgotten Rachel was there. “Right,” she said. “Well, come on. The hatchling isn’t moving and it won’t eat. Let’s see if you can make it react.” She turned and left without waiting to see if Rachel was coming.
Trying and failing to stifle a massive grin, Rachel jumped from her seat and followed.
The mermaid, curled up on the bottom of the pool, stirred to life the moment Rachel entered the tank room, uncoiling and swimming to the surface, moving to the side of the tank closest to Rachel as she approached, its body undulating like a gymnast’s ribbon. She smiled down at it, and she thought it smiled back.
The sliding doors to the outside stood open, letting the summer light and heat stream in. In her work clothes, Rachel started to sweat. The water looked so inviting, but just imagining the reactions of Dr. Solomon and the two other biologists in the room if she were to take a dip made her laugh out loud.
“Unbelievable,” Dr. Solomon muttered.
Rachel ignored her and crouched down near the edge where the water met the concrete. The mermaid floated a few feet away, eyeing her, its fins wavering. She looked into the dark pupils, and a shock tingled down her body. The eyes—they weren’t human, but something about them reminded her of AJ. Powerfully so. The memory of their first real date snapped into her mind with perfect clarity. AJ at the coffee shop table when she walked in, standing and smiling as she approached. Pulling a single sunflower from behind his back. They talked and drank coffee for three hours. Shared a chocolate croissant, Rachel’s favorite.
The mermaid’s teeth clacked together, yanking Rachel from the memory. It cocked its head, looked at her quizzically. And she returned an expression of mingled confusion and shock. Because there had been no sunflower. No croissant; she’d been too nervous to eat in front of AJ. And he hadn’t been waiting for her when she got there. He was forty minutes late. But the memory made something well up inside of her, a joy she hadn’t felt in months. Not since the moment she’d gotten the news about AJ’s accident.
As Rachel’s eyes teared up and her vision became blurry, the mermaid ceased moving its fins and sunk back to the floor of the pool.
The seal tank by the front doors to the aquarium part of the Oceanographic Institute always drew a crowd—not only were the seals adorable, but since it was outside, people could visit for free. Whenever Tanya met Rachel after work, Rachel knew that was where she would find her.
Sure enough, Tanya perched on a railing, idly watching the harbor seals twist and turn in the water. From the front doors of the Institute, Rachel stood and watched her for a minute. How many times had Tanya come here to meet her? How many times had she held Rachel’s hand, stroked her hair, hugged her while she cried over the last months? There was nothing Rachel could ever do to thank her. And she knew that Tanya didn’t even want her to try.
“Hey,” she said, walking over.
Tanya greeted her and they watched the seals together for a bit before walking off toward the Quahog Pub for a drink.
Rachel asked Tanya about her day, and she did listen, she really did. But the moment Tanya stopped talking and asked Rachel about her own day, she was off and running. After a minute, she noticed Tanya’s smile and stopped.
“Nothing,” Tanya said. “It’s just nice, listening to you talk about the mermaid. I haven’t seen you this excited about anything since—” Her voice caught, her eyes suddenly fearful. Like she was walking and noticed she was about to step on something very sharp and fragile.
“It’s okay,” Rachel said softly. “I know.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, really, it’s okay. I am excited.” Rachel gave Tanya a smile, but she felt it not reach her eyes. “I’d almost thought I’d never feel that again. It’s not the same as it was, obviously, but nothing could make me feel like AJ. He was just perfect for me, you know?”
Tanya didn’t say anything, kept her eyes forward, and Rachel didn’t press it. They walked quietly for a few minutes, Rachel thinking about AJ, thinking about the mermaid. Just before they reached the bar, she stopped and turned to Tanya, smiling again.
“Do you want to go see it?” she asked.
“The mermaid? How?”
“I work there, I’ve got a keycard.”
“But it’s closed. You can get in whenever? To the tank?” Tanya sounded impressed, if a little worried, and it all made Rachel want to show off even more. To stand by the pool and throw her arms open, to say This is a real mermaid, and I brought it to life.
“I need access to it. And we’re an oceanographic institute, not some secret government lab.” She grinned wide. This one she knew reached her eyes. “Besides,” she said, “it likes me.”
The Institute was mostly abandoned after work hours; only the janitorial staff and a few late-working grad students still shuffled the halls and huddled in cubicles. Early evening light filtered through the windows, and when Rachel opened the door into the tank room, she and Tanya walked into a view of the pink and orange sunset sky through the closed plastic flaps.
Why not just open them? Rachel thought. Let the mermaid see the outside. Even if they left the flaps open at night, there were locked security gates and fences to keep out curious onlookers. A tiny pang of sadness gripped her heart. Surely the mermaid was smart enough to know it was a prisoner.
Tanya’s voice broke Rachel from her reverie. “Is that it?” She leaned around Rachel and pointed to the pool, where the mermaid floated on its back, eyes on the ceiling. Imagining the sky.
“That’s it.” She walked out of the doorway, and the mermaid rolled over, looking at her. It swam slowly toward the edge of the pool. “Let’s go say hi.”
After a few steps, Rachel realized that Tanya wasn’t following. She turned back.
“I’m okay looking from here,” Tanya said, her smile thin.
Rachel looked from Tanya to the mermaid, back and forth. She guessed the mermaid could be intimidating at first, before you got to know it. “It’s in the tank,” she said. “And it’s friendly. I promise.”
She wore sensible green flats with no socks, and her foot slid out easily as she approached the pool. The mermaid hung in the water, eyes locked on her. She didn’t think about what she was doing, but she felt peaceful and brave as she dipped her big toe into the saltwater tank. This was the closest she and the mermaid had ever physically been. A thrill rushed through her, and she could barely hear Tanya telling her to stop it, to get back. It didn’t even hurt when the mermaid lunged at her, open-mouthed, and bit her toe clean off. Blood spurted into the water, and she fell back hard onto the concrete floor with a blank expression on her face.
Rachel cried and pleaded and begged, and they didn’t fire her, but she was suspended for a week and her keycard was re-coded. If she wanted to go into the tank room, someone else would have to accompany her. It was embarrassing—everyone else could go where they pleased, from janitorial staff to the Institute’s directors—but she knew it was better than losing her job, her prospects, probably getting kicked out of her doctoral program. Dr. Solomon ended the interview shaking her head solemnly, not mad but disappointed.
“What were you thinking, Rachel?” she asked.
Rachel told her she hadn’t been, and that was true. But she didn’t tell Dr. Solomon the emotions that filled her or what she saw. That as she had dipped her toe in the water, she didn’t see the mermaid’s teeth, but AJ’s face, and remembered the day he proposed, how he had somehow snuck roses into the bedroom while she showered. How he got down on one knee, and when she hugged him after accepting how his heart was pounding harder than she’d ever felt it. How she laughed and asked him why he would ever be nervous because of course she was going to say yes. How that was the happiest moment of her life and would be until the day they got married—a day that suddenly disappeared the night AJ crashed his car.
She didn’t tell Dr. Solomon that feeling that way again made losing her toe worth it.
More than just her big toe was missing. The mermaid had bitten off that, her second toe, part of her third, and a chunk of her foot. Her missing pieces throbbed and itched, and even with the boot they’d given her in the hospital, Rachel limped. She would limp the rest of her life.
Tanya visited her every night of her suspension. Rachel hated being so needy. It reminded her of the weeks after AJ died, and that made her feel even worse.
Whenever Tanya wasn’t around, all through the lonely empty days and late nights when she should have been reading or working on her dissertation, Rachel browsed YouTube for news stories, video clips, anything showing mermaids. Her own wasn’t in many, but those were the videos she played the most, watching and rewatching loops of her mermaid swimming in the tank, eating fish she tossed to it—and how strange to see herself in a video that had been watched thousands of times.
She scrolled through pictures of her and AJ on her phone. She queued up another video.
The mermaid had lost weight while Rachel was gone. Barely eating, Dr. Solomon said, not bothering to hide her annoyance. As if it was Rachel’s fault that the mermaid liked her. As if she’d opened her finger and bled into the tank on purpose, knowing what would happen.
From ten feet away, she sat and watched the mermaid eat, snapping up herring and smelt with big chomping bites. After each one, it would stop and look at her, like it was inviting her to join it.
“I tried bonding with it myself,” Dr. Solomon said. She held up her index finger, a tiny circular bandage on the tip. “Just a few drops, but I thought it might help. No dice.”
Hot irrational anger flared in Rachel. How dare she?
The emotion must have been clear on Rachel’s face. Dr. Solomon crinkled her brow. “Don’t look at me like that. What I did was a controlled experiment. Fully approved. You know we wouldn’t be the first to try.”
“Of course,” Rachel said, trying to tamp down the rising indignation. She looked back to the mermaid. It was looking right at them. No, it was looking right at her. Even from her seat, she could see its eyes, the loneliness. Why couldn’t Dr. Solomon—why couldn’t all of them—just understand that it needed her? Why couldn’t they let her help it?
The mermaid darted its head forward and took another of the floating fish. Jaws working steadily, it aligned itself straight in the water, stared at Rachel, and showed its blood-speckled teeth. Dr. Solomon would say that it was just chewing, that its teeth were so large it couldn’t really close its mouth, that it wasn’t smiling. That the nictating membranes over its eyes were simply clearing away water so it could see through the air, that it wasn’t winking. But Rachel knew the truth. They shared emotions. It had drunk her blood, her sorrow. After a quick glance to make sure Dr. Solomon wasn’t watching, she winked back.
It was dark, late, but the keycard opened the front door no matter the time. Rachel couldn’t believe how easy it had been to swipe a keycard—the janitor she’d borrowed it from had left it lying on his rolling mop stand when he’d gone to use the men’s room. Two seconds later, Rachel had free reign of the Institute again. She slipped through the door and held out her hand to catch it behind her so it wouldn’t clang shut.
“Wait!” she heard just before it closed, and she startled, sure it would be a police officer, Dr. Solomon, someone else trying to stop her. That she’d underestimated the security, been caught stealing the keycard. But it was Tanya.
“What are you doing here?” Rachel hissed as she let her friend inside and let the door latch shut.
“What are you doing here? We’re supposed to be watching a movie at your apartment. There’s a bag of Chinese takeout getting cold on your front steps.”
Rachel wanted to be defiant, but after half a second looking into Tanya’s eyes, her own drifted to her shoes.
“Rachel…” Tanya said. Just that, nothing else. No other words were necessary, not between them.
“You haven’t seen it, Tanya,” Rachel said. “Every day I’m here, and it’s so sad. It’s going to die unless I do something.” She looked over Tanya’s shoulder, outside, stepped back from the door into the darkened lobby.
Tanya regarded her for a long moment. “Are you saying this as a scientist?”
“Yes,” Rachel said, unsure if she was lying.
Even in the low light from the streetlights outside, Rachel could see the war going on behind Tanya’s eyes.
“Just go if you want,” Rachel said. “Call the police or whatever. I won’t even be mad.”
Tanya chuffed laughter. “Yeah.” She shook her head. “I’m not helping. I’m coming to keep you safe.”
Rachel smiled. “It won’t hurt me.”
“You’re kidding me,” Tanya said, looking to Rachel’s foot in the boot. But she pressed her lips together and followed her friend through the dark and empty offices, past rows of cubicles and fish tanks, until they reached the big tank room. As she lifted the keycard to the door, Rachel again worried it might not work, but the reader beeped, the light turned from red to green, and they went inside.
For Rachel, walking into the room was like stepping into an air-conditioned building on a hot, humid day. Relief and comfort in her bones and on her skin. Her lips curled into an instinctual smile. This was where she was supposed to be. This was who she was supposed to be with.
Even though Tanya was just steps behind her, Rachel may as well have been alone. Only Rachel and the mermaid mattered. The mermaid waited for her at the edge of the pool, and Rachel went to it. Soothing memories floated up in her brain, happy times with AJ, all the good times. The fights, the drinking, everything bad just melted away.
Amongst the visions of AJ and her life—the snowy afternoons spent cuddling and watching Netflix; the week they spent in Aruba, sitting on the beach and sipping overpriced rum-runners; the cookout she threw for his twenty-ninth birthday, and how he’d figured it out because she couldn’t keep a secret—she saw herself and the mermaid. The two of them swimming together in cloudy Cape Cod waters. The mermaid taking her hand and drawing her deeper and deeper into the true dark ocean. Somehow, through magic or science or something neither and both, her lungs opening up and taking in water and filtering the oxygen. Breathing underwater, able to stay with the mermaid forever. At that moment, there was nothing she had ever wanted more.
Tanya said something behind her as Rachel slipped one foot from her shoe, worked her other out of the boot, and toed the edge of the pool, but Rachel didn’t hear the words. Her bare foot lifted from the concrete and hovered over the water. All she had to do was fall forward. Not even act, just let gravity do its work, and she would join the mermaid. They would swim away, escape through the gate to the ocean. She could open it in seconds, and when Dr. Solomon and the rest came in the following day, all they’d find would be an empty tank, a sneaker, and a walking boot. She closed her eyes and leaned forward.
Her face splashed into the pool at the same instant that something snagged her ankle and yanked backward. Fingers slid from her ankle to calf, gripping her leg and hauling like she was the rope in a game of tug-of-war. Her stomach smacked against the lip of the pool, and she grunted in pain. Her eyes popped open, and she saw the mermaid inches away, its tail curling toward her, its teeth gleaming in the diffuse moonlight. She reached out to it and opened her mouth to thank it, but arms wrapped tight around her legs and pulled. Saltwater stung her nostrils and burned into her throat as she screeched and thrashed. Tanya pulled again and clung tighter. Like a landed marlin on some prize fisher’s boat, Rachel flopped onto concrete, dripping and sobbing and cursing Tanya.
“Let me go! Let me go with him! This is what I want!”
Tanya gritted her teeth and let out a sound like a boiling teakettle.
“It’s helping me,” Rachel cried, her voice hitching and hoarse. Her fingers clawed on the ground as she tried to scrabble out of Tanya’s grasp. “It showed me AJ. It’s like he’s still here, like the accident never happened.”
Tanya screamed, and in all the years they’d known each other, Rachel had never heard such fury, had never seen her friend simply open herself up and let her emotions rush out. “It wasn’t a fucking accident!” she yelled. “It’s his fault he’s dead, and you were always too good for him anyway!”
Rachel’s lungs throbbed, her heart shriveled like a raisin. She saw AJ, sitting behind the wheel of his car, eyes ahead, hands at ten and two. Some small animal, a raccoon or possum, a flash of dusky fur darting in front of the wheels, and the car spun out as AJ tried to avoid it. And there she was meanwhile, peacefully asleep at home, unaware that her life was being ripped away. Not waiting up, anxiously checking her phone every two minutes. But of course she had been.
Something in her brain cracked open and lit an area that had been obscured by dark fog. A wordless sob ripped her throat, and the truth she’d held in for months fell out. “He was drunk. He could have called me, and I’d have picked him up, but he didn’t care.”
The tension fled her body and she went limp in Tanya’s arms. Tangy salty liquid dripped across Rachel’s lips. Tears or ocean water, she didn’t know. From the corner of her eye, she saw the mermaid looking at her inquisitively. Confused. Dejected. Hurt. Enraged. Its jaw worked back and forth as it gnashed its teeth on water and air.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel whispered, but she didn’t know whether she was apologizing to the mermaid, to Tanya, to AJ, to herself.
She lay weak and motionless, wrapped in Tanya’s embrace. Everything inside her, everything she’d felt, everything she and the mermaid shared, leaked out. Over the course of the long night, her friend pulled her away from the pool, from the mermaid. Inch by inch, until the sun rose and the day’s first arrivals found them outside the door, helping each other stand and walk out into the morning.